[Source: John Yantis, AZ Republic] – The wrecking ball often swings faster in smaller cities trying to save history, preservationists and local leaders say. Money, know-how, constantly changing priorities and new residents with shallow roots in the community often hinder efforts to protect historic architecture and cultural sites. The dilemma leaves longtime residents disappointed and frustrates efforts to save local landmarks.
In June, former students failed to save an auditorium-turned gymnasium in Litchfield Park. Constructed in 1928, the gym was a reminder of the city’s early days. A month later, Buckeye officials voted to demolish a cotton gin that was also built in 1928. After the decision, a town councilman wondered aloud why Buckeye bothers to advertise its historic past. “The gin is just a rusty building,” said Councilman Robert Garza, a fifth-generation native of Buckeye. “But it is part of our heritage.”
Preservation can present challenges in larger cities, too. In Mesa, organized efforts to save historic sites began in the mid-1990s, but advocates said they only came after the city lost numerous noteworthy buildings, including a social hall, park and school.
Impediments to saving history in smaller cities are usually more acute. They often start too late. “It can happen at all different levels, but I think small communities haven’t spent a lot (of) time inventorying,” said James Garrison, state historic-preservation officer.
“They’re interested in growth and new things and attracting businesses and doing all these things and often don’t take a look around at what might fit a new use or be available for adaptive reuse.” Adaptive reuse is a process that allows older buildings to be used for new purposes while retaining their historic features.
Many large cities have preservation officers and commissions that allow experts to plan and look for properties that could become endangered, Garrison said. Smaller towns’ historic sites often go vacant, which escalates the cost to fix them up. Buildings left empty deteriorate quickly and are often vandalized. Also, often there is little practical discussion about what they will be used for. Every property can’t become a museum, but these sites still need an active life in the community, Garrison said.
Financial challenges – Preservation efforts in Arizona were recently complicated after a state-funding source dried up. In 2010, the governor and state Legislature stripped a portion of Arizona’s Heritage Fund that provided $1.5 million in grants for cities to find, preserve, stabilize and rehabilitate buildings and other historic sites. The fund was made up of lottery proceeds approved by voters in 1990.
The Arizona Heritage Alliance and others are working to restore the fund, which is administered by the Arizona State Parks Board. The Arizona Preservation Foundation, a group of volunteer preservation advocates, did not gather enough signatures to get the issue on the November ballot. They plan to get the issue on the ballot in 2014.
As public money for preservation becomes more scarce, some cities have unsuccessfully tried to find private financing. In Goodyear, a years-long effort to restore the Litchfield Train Station is taking a new direction after backers had difficulty raising enough money through raffles and car and train shows. Members of the city’s Centennial Commission decided in May to form a non-profit foundation, said Wally Campbell, a city councilwoman who serves on the board. Supporters hope the foundation will qualify for grants. Someday, foundation officials hope it will be part of a train park for children. “We’re excited about it, but we’re moving forward slowly,” Campbell said. The 1,900-square-foot station was built in the 1920s by the Southern Pacific Railroad. In 2009, the city moved the depot 3 miles from its original location, to an area near the intersection of Cotton Lane and Maricopa 85.
Ever-changing plans – In Buckeye, evolving city plans have frustrated historic-preservation efforts. For years, informal town plans called for turning the Eastman Gin into a museum and downtown gateway to showcase the area’s agricultural heritage. Town officials spent more than $2 million to buy the gin and surrounding property. In the end, renovating the landmark, which was once used to separate cotton from its seeds, was too costly. Demolition is expected to begin in early September. For Garza, it was the latest example of shifting priorities. “It’s hard because Buckeye went through a giant boom, and we had a big influx of people from outside,” he said. “They didn’t necessarily see what we saw in our community, in our history, in our culture.”
Successful saves – Jim McPherson, president of the Arizona Preservation Foundation, says there is greater awareness about the importance of historic preservation in smaller cities. Officials and the public are more focused on sustainability and adapting buildings to be reused, he said. Old Main, a 90-year-old vacant building on Peoria High’s campus, will be saved. About $1.6 million will be spent to save the building.
Phoenix has used bond money to renovate many historic structures, McPherson said.
And earlier this month, Litchfield Park struck a deal with the school district that will ensure the protection of a mission-style church built in the early 1920s. Unfortunately, some historic sites in small towns can’t be saved, McPherson said. “We hurt every time that happens because that’s one more strike against our heritage in a state that’s relatively new,” McPherson said.
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